'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' review: Not merely great sci-fi but great drama

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' review: Not merely great sci-fi but great drama

The "Planet of the Apes" franchise is officially cool again. Add "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" to the short list of sequels that surpass their already impressive predecessors.

In short: A decade after a plague all but completely wipes out humanity, a chance encounter between a group of people struggling for survival and a thriving band of apes imperils their peaceful societies. While human survivor Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) diligently work to forge a tenuous, if strained, peace -- their efforts are threatened by warmongering humans and apes alike. (watch the trailer)

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" absolutely takes everything great about it's predecessor - "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" - and continues pushing the rebooted franchise into exciting new territory. "Dawn" is a great sequel because it's closer to a standalone movie than a typical franchise sequel - which are usually mired in their own over-complicated mythology. "Dawn" is essentially a basic tale of survival between two rival groups, where co-existence may not be an option.

The apes are absolutely what make "Dawn" incredible. Their first on-screen appearance is an astonishing sequence that illustrates their ability to plan complicated hunting strategies - as well as displaying their raw, brutal power. These apes are strong, smart and superior to humans in almost every way necessary for survival in a post-apocalyptic world.

"Dawn" also fleshes out and beautifully realizes the society the apes have forged. These beautifully realized characters have established values, a complex hierarchy and even a primitive education system. But at their core, they are still very much apes - with animalistic tendencies and ingrained simian behavior patterns - such as dominance and troop structure.

What elevates "Dawn" from just being a great sci-fi flick about highly evolved apes and makes it an intense and compelling action-drama is the incredible complexity of the ape relationships. These are not simply CGI cartoon monkeys - these apes have genuine character, long-standing relationships and personal motives that escalate compelling conflict. The film brilliantly invests time and effort in establishing the apes as complex characters - which effectively raises their stakes and makes them characters worth rooting against, caring for or simply fearing.

The same cannot be said of the humans in "Dawn." For a film that's theoretically about apes and humans, "Dawn" excels during virtually every ape-centric scene, but isn't quite as strong during the human scenes.

Almost everything about the humans is neglected to a certain degree - be it the rushed explanation of why humans ventured into ape territory or how human's have eked out a survival on the edge of human extinction. Even the main human character - the ape-sympathizer Malcolm - is vaguely established as a character. He's not the leader of the human survivors but his advice/leadership is clearly followed. The closest two characters to Malcolm could be summed up simply as 'Malcolm's gf' and 'Malcolm's moody son.' Those script deficiencies aside, Jason Clarke does a fine job of injecting a warm humanity to Malcolm, who risks his life trying to establish peace between the humans and apes.

Andy Serkis again shines as the ape leader Caesar - the main ape from "Rise." Caesar is a commanding presence, a firm leader and loving family man -- which only makes Serkis's performance all the more impressive because Caesar is a character of few words and broken English phrases. But Serkis turns a minimal amount of dialogue and incredible motion capture act into one of the strongest and most dynamic film performances of the year.

On the flip side, Gary Oldman does his best with a very bland character as the leader of the human survivors -- but not even the beloved actor succeeds in saving the human villain from devolving into a shallow antagonist. His one tiny bit of back story - the only thing that gives his much humanity or character - is a quiet scene Oldman has looking at pictures. Beyond that, his aggressive human leader is best summed up as 'guy who wants to fight apes.'

The 3D in this flick is better than most 3D films - but "Dawn" can absolutely be enjoyed in standard 2D without having to pay for the 3D premium ticket.

In short: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a compelling, detailed sci-fi action drama packed with incredible visuals and richly developed ape characters. The action is solid, the visuals are impressive and the CGI apes are amazing - but this tragic action-drama's core story - a fight for survival - makes "Dawn" a must-see film of the summer.

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" hits theaters nationwide July 11 - with early screenings late Thurs (July 10) and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language.

Score: 4/5

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